Monday, July 09, 2018

Review of 'Flight Behaviour' by Barbara Kingsolver

Really loved this - a clever, thoughtful and often funny book about climate change, poverty, education, science, community, relationships...it's just great. Particularly good on insights into what it's like to be a poor person (especially a working poor person) in a rural part of the US, and why such people aren't interested in any kind of environmental activism. There are great portraits of educated urban activists, and it's made me look at my tribe through different eyes.

Friday, June 29, 2018

RSA report on Cohousing

So I read the RSA report on cohousing - see here - and my main take-away is that it wasn't really about cohousing. There's lots about what is broken in the UK housing market - in particular, the lack of actually affordable (as opposed to "affordable", now a term with special meaning that specifies a discount from overblown market rents rather than a relationship to disposable income), and the poor terms and conditions that apply to renters but not so much to mortgage buyers. There is quite a lot discussion about forms of tenure, with particular emphasis on mutual ownership, rental co-ops, a community land trusts.

That's all very interesting (really, it is) but most of the report misses the point about cohousing, which is that it is form of occupancy, not a form of tenure. The cohousing community where I live, and most of the others in the UK and the US, is primarily based on owner-occupancy, though there are some private renters (living in homes owned by individuals, not the community or any other institution) and some lodgers. The tenure is more or less bog-standard leasehold that you'd find in many blocks of flats. In Northern Europe there are lot more rental-based cohousing communities, with the community (or a housing association) acting as the landlord.

The distinguishing feature of the occupancy is really the self-management. Other developments have shared facilities. It's a common feature of high-end developments (pool, gym etc.). Old-style US condominiums have residents' association rooms and facilities, and shared laundries seem to be common in US apartment blocks (though not in British ones). The new commercial 'co-living' set-ups like The Collective have them too.

The difference is that in co-housing these are managed and maintained, and cleaned, (for the most part) by the residents themselves, and it's the organisation of this that means that people are necessarily entangled and involved with each other. Not everyone is equally involved, but it seems to be true that the more you put in, the more you get out - at least in terms of loneliness reduction.

Our community has frequent (thrice-weekly) communal meals, prepared and cooked by community members through a rota, to a rolling meal schedule, in a communal kitchen and dining room that is beautifully maintained. The eating together is important (though not every cohousing community does it), but it's the self-management - the rotas and the inevitable shift swaps, the menus, the food buying - that keeps people entangled with each other. The upside of cohousing, the connection with other people, is exactly the same as the downside - that you are inextricably bound up with other people.

When my partner and I tell our friends about it, they often react that they wouldn't like to have all of those obligations...and they might be right. In one sense, the people in cohousing are just like everyone else. There isn't a common ideology or philosophy. Not everyone is particularly generous or self-less. Some people are involved with wider communities, some aren't. What distinguishes them is their ability to tolerate these obligations, and that level of entanglement with other people and need to take the views and preferences of others into account. I suspect that this is a not such a common characteristic, especially in Britain, especially now. If I'm right, then cohousing won't be a cure for loneliness, at least for many people - though it is a good vehicle for those who are that way inclined. It's probably worth noting that even in those Scandinavian countries where it's well established and relatively easy to establish the proportion of the population that lives in cohousing remains below 5%.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Review of 'Regarding Henry'

Harrison Ford is a nasty, rapacious lawyer who defends corporate bad guys against little people that they have wronged, even if he knows they are wrong. He works in a Manhattan law firm where his father ('the old bastard') used to work, and he's good at his job and everyone there thinks he's great. He lives in a big, soul-less apartment in a not-too-happy marriage with his attractive wife who works in real estate and his very-retiring daughter, with whom he has a relationship based on teaching her to be tough but obedient.

But then he gets shot in a corner shop when he goes out for cigarettes, and as he recovers he has little memory of who he was or what value he saw in his former life. This is a good role for Harrison Ford, because it lets him use his one expression, a sort of intelligent-but-confused look. When he's the newer, nice Henry he has a different, softer hairstyle - the one on the poster.

Eventually he and his wife rediscover their relationship, he quits his horrible law firm (and passes some inside information to one of the plaintiffs that the firm and its client wronged), the couple take their daughter out of the strict posh boarding school where they have sent her against her will, and walk off into the sunset. It's a paean to family values over corporate values, at least for those wealthy and secure enough to choose between them.

Watched on Neflix.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Review of 'Sweet Caress'

I'm going off William Boyd a bit. He used to be a reliable mid-range story-teller, not too literary but solid and worth reading. Recently though his stuff is beginning to feel like it's written out of contractual obligation. This one is OK, though for a while in the middle I was using it to fall asleep at night, because it was reliably boring. It's a biography, and shapeless in the same way that real life is. For the most part things just happen to the main character. Every so often she makes impetuous decisions that have consequences, but there doesn't seem to be much of a relationship between the decisions and the consequences, at least in the head of the protagonist. There's lots of big stuff about the horrors of war, the secret state and so on, but it doesn't really seem to go anywhere. Oh well, it probably won't be the last Boyd I read...

Monday, June 04, 2018

Review of 'Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle'

This is a really good film about the failure of the housing market in the UK to provide housing for rent at prices compatible with the levels of wages provided by the labour market. There are lots of individual stories about how the structure of that market, and the political choices taken by successive governments, have afflicted people's lives. The decisions - notably but not only the introduction of 'right to buy' which hollowed out the stock owned by local authorities - are set out and the effects illustrated.

It's mainly a tale of misery. There is some coverage of struggles by tenants to prevent their estates being demolished or sold off, but not much sign of any of these being successful. The general air is one of inevitability in the face of overwhelming power and the 'naturalness' of the market; the film is mainly asking for more social housing to be built and offered at below-market rents to offset the 'natural' working of the market.

A few things occurred to me as a I watched.

Firstly, language - the battle is half lost when those in power can define words to mean what they want them to. "Affordable" housing is a category that doesn't actually mean people on low incomes - or even middling incomes - can afford it. "Regeneration" means clearing out the present residents, demolishing the housing stock, replacing it with something denser and worse (though not suffering from years of under-mainenance) and then bringing in new tenants or owners at much higher prices. "Consultation" is a name given to a process that includes some mechanism for soliciting the opinions of others without any obligation to take any notice of those opinions. Oh, and "luxury" flats - not actually anything to do with luxury, just private and owned instead of public and rented. The space standards in these "luxury" flats, and sometimes even the construction, is worse than what they replace.

Secondly, it's very much a bottom up view - there wasn't much analysis of the mechanisms by which this is so profitable for some companies, or how the subsidies and tax breaks given to the rich and even not-so-rich (people like me) stack the market against the people in the film. Real estate is a capital asset on which many kinds of privileges are heaped - if some of those were taken away then it wouldn't be such a fabulous place to stash money, and then prices would at least slow if not decline to more affordable levels. The shortage of property is a function of the demand side of the market, because the attractiveness of the asset class and the banks' freedom to create money means that demand will always outstrip supply. Building more homes ultimately doesn't make any difference. The utter idiocy of the 'help to buy' program illustrates this.

It would have been nice if the film had talked a bit about other 'global cities' - it focuses a lot on London. In some exactly the same process has happened. Central Paris and New York are only for very rich people now; so-called 'Yuppies' gentrify Brooklyn, which used to be for poorer people, and the latter get pushed further out. I think this started in the early 1980s as the wealthy began to move back into city centres, and they did that partly because of transport. Once car ownership reached a certain level then commuting in from the suburbs became a misery, and then it was better to live in the city centres. That's why the 'inner-cities' (an expression we don't hear so much any more) became so desirable, when they had recently been a by-word for poverty. A few cities (notably Berlin and Barcelona) have had some success in standing against this and maintaining social diversity in their centres - and rent control has been central to this. Rent control also helps to make the ownership of property less attractive, so it's a good thing on that score too.

The current property market acts as a mechanism for the distribution of wealth from poor to rich. Even if the clock were wound back to the 1970s and the state started funding the construction of social housing for rent at truly affordable levels, there would still be a transfer of wealth from renters to owners in every generation. It's worth noting that in some places (Singapore comes to mind) the state builds homes for sale on a low-interest mortgage. Perhaps we need to think about a mechanism - better than right to buy - that ensures that the transfer is stopped and perhaps even reversed.

Finally, it's probably worth saying that there's a relationship with the labour market and wage levels, and precarity, that doesn't get addressed much. The big social rented estates served a population that was mainly in work, in secure jobs. People in precarious jobs - zero-hours contracts and the like - can't afford a deposit either for rent or for buying, and won't be taken on by either landlords or lenders.

Watched at a showing organised by Stroud Against the Cuts at Lansdown Hall in Hall. Thanks for that - look how much it's set me thinking.

Review of 'The Sense of An Ending'

Poignant small book about an oldish bloke looking back on his life, the roads not taken, the consequences of choices made and not made, our inability to understand life from others' perspectives...all-round unhappiness, really.

Meticulously constructed in a voice that suggests the first person narrator is a bit...well, boring really, and aware that he is.

Doesn't need me to recommend it - it won a Man Booker.

Review of 'High Tide in Tucson'

A nice, early book of essays from Barbara Kingsolver - lots about nature and ecosystems, some really sensible stuff about relationships, and writing, and parenting, and feminism. All beautifully written, and this is before she even turned into the brilliant writer that she is now.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Review of 'The Clapper'

Slightly sad comedy about a not-very-successful bloke in LA who makes a living being a paid audience member on 'infomercials', a category of advertisment that we are spared in the UK. A chat show notices that he appears, somewhat disguised, in multiple ads and makes a running gag out of it, so that he becomes - not very happily - famous for his fifteen minutes. It intrudes on his friendships and his developing relationship with the improbably beautiful woman at the till in the garage where he gets his petrol.

A warning, if ever one was needed, to have nothing whatsoever to do with TV.

Watched on Neflix...one of the better films there.

Review of 'Eisenstein in Guanajato'

Peter Greenaway must have had a lot of fun making this, but the same can't really be said for the audience. It's visually striking, in a sort of hybrid Greenaway/Eisenstein sort of way...striking images, striking montage. Eisenstein is a very sympathetic, jaded virgin, at once still in love with The Revolution but losing his illusions about the USSR.

The most explicit gay sex scene I've seen outside of porn, but I guess I've had a pretty sheltered life in that respect. Not much about politics, either Soviet or Mexican, a little about Eisenstein's failed trip to the USA and his not-very-happy relationship with Upton Sinclair, who was briefly a sort of patron.

Not devoid of merit, but not worth the time spent watching it either. I put this on in the Common House in Springhill, and by the end most viewers had gone.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Review of 'Meat: A Benign Extravagance'

Well, it won't be surprising if any of my vegetarian and vegan friends don't like this book much, but it's a shame if they don't read it. It's epic in scope, fabulously well written, and full of amazingly useful detail about agriculture, carbon emissions and energy budgets. It's astonishing how much research it represents.

Ultimately whether you agree with the author's conclusions depends (I think) on the extent to which you think it's ethically acceptable to kill and eat other sentient creatures - it's not an argument with which he engages at all. But if you are vegan or vegetarian for sustainability reasons then you really ought to spend some time with this book.

It's worth noting that he argues for a 'default' level of meat consumption - he agrees it's not a very good name - by which means a diet with much less meat, based on the amount of animal protein available because of the other ways in which animals are useful in agriculture - traction, restoring soil, consuming waste, etc. He isn't standing up for cheap factory-farmed meat (or eggs or dairy).

In passing he deals with lots of other arguments about carbon sequestration, forestry vs. grassland, and about different visions of a sustainable future for humans - it's worth noting that plenty of 'ecologists' including James Lovelock describe a future dystopia in which humans are shut up in nightmare cities and fed a load of factory-produced feed, and elsewhere nature reservations allow 'Gaia' to regenerate safe from us (but perhaps not from enjoyment by our betters).

BTW if you are at all interested, there seems to be pdf available for download.